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A discussion on Cultural Appropriation from a White Henna Artist

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

If you don’t have the time to read my long winded post about Cultural Appropriation, Please read my quick takeaways!

-Do your own research THEN ask questions. (Search as many sources as you can, don’t just read popular opinion pieces from buzzfeed or twitter that aim to polarize and evoke reactions. Its called buzzfeed for a reason people!!!)

-Go to the direct source! Ask the people who belong to the culture(s)! This is extremely important. No person is unbiased but I feel its best to talk to groups that are concerned & let them speak. It's important to do research first so you can avoid asking offensive questions.

- Work within the communities that are concerned. ( I go to temples, mosques and cultural centers to offer my services, educate and/or volunteer.) Do not try to profit from these experiences, think of them as enrichment working within a cultural space to build your experience.

-Be humble. (cultural conversations are difficult, put aside your ego to hear the voices of marginalized people.) Look into the language of gaslighting, microaggressions and covert racism! Be sure you know the signs so you are able to walk away and protect your mental health if someone is clearly displaying these tactics, its not worth it.

-Be kind. (My grandfather always taught me, if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Attacking others is not the answer to positive change.) You can't shame someone into being anti-racist.

I have a idea about what your thinking, what perspective can a white woman add to a conversation about cultural appropriation? Shouldn’t we “sit down” & let the cultures being appropriated speak? YES ABSOLUTELY, It is not my place to dominate this discussion! I am merely here to learn, share & ask some difficult questions and make observations. The fact of the matter is.. Cultural appropriation is MOSTLY committed by white people and a by product of racism & colonialism. As primary perpetrators, I am concerned with this issue within the henna community.

What makes me think that I can discuss something that my people or ancestors might have taken part in perpetrating? The idea that I am not the “right” person to discuss this topic IS exactly what stopped me from writing about this for so long. I felt really conflicted about using my voice as a white woman to speak about this topic. I finally overcame the hurdle and decided to write about this delicate topic anyway as it comes up again and again in the henna Community. I recently spoke to a friend online who is deeply invested in social issues. She gave me the courage I needed to tell my story. She told me that white people need to be committed to the conversation and listen to these groups who are being appropriated/ misappropriated if we want change. Our silence is violence. We cannot be complicit. Thank you for everyone who has encouraged me, and shared their cultural insight and perspectives with me..

I have a lot of thoughts/ stories to share so bear with me. I will run though my experiences, ask questions and propose thoughts that I would love for YOU to respond with your experience, questions and concerns! My aim is not to change your mind, diminish your experience or convince you that Cultural Appropriation does not exist. IT DOES and I am well aware. My aim is to open up dialogue between groups of people that are different and divided. I want to build bridges and offer up solutions to this social problem instead of the usual, hurting, gas-lighting, invalidating, yelling, shaming or claiming blindness. My interest in this topic is not purely self-serving. I believe that if we open our minds and hearts to other peoples ways of life with respect and curiosity, I think we will emerge as a happier global society that co-exists better with less racism, judgment and fear.

According to google, Cultural appropriation is defined as the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of customs, practices, ideas etc of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. A part of that definition sticks out at me, dominant culture. So I understand it as aspects/ elements of a culture that are taken (without permission) out of their original context and copied from a minority by a dominant culture. This is the power structure of the issue.

So by that definition, is it possible for a culture to appropriate a part of their own culture or is that just considered understandable exploitation for capital gains? No, because there is no power structure to be exploited. Heres an example, The use of chemical henna. Henna is traditionally used by cultures all over the world, but most often associated with South Asian culture. Once "industrialization" came to India they started producing chemical cones in small factories more often instead of using just the henna plant (which grows there) and mixing natural paste. Now that the commercialization of chemical henna has been going on for at last 3-4 generations**, it is perceived as a part of their tradition. It is not. They are simply continuing a profitable venture that is associated with their culture. The truth is, chemical henna cones are not an Indian invention, but a French introduction, a product of colonization. This is now a complex issue caused by western influence! Another problematic issue that we are now working to un-do.

I meet people of South Asian decent often who prefer the use of black henna/ chemical cones and believe it is all-natural. What happens is companies in India produce these cones in factories and label them as halal and then ship them internationally (and also use/sell them domestically.)

The FDA here in the United States can’t regulate them since they enter the country mislabeled and with no ingredient list on the actual cones most of the time. These cones mostly have chemical solvents and dyes with little (if any) plant matter in them. I find the use of chemical henna troubling because of safety concerns and the deviation from the customary use of henna which was medicinally used and then evolved to be a natural-plant based art form. Some countries have successfully banned the use of chemical henna.

We can change this in the United States through lobbying for stricter labeling standards, reporting sellers on amazon and eBay and talking to the public about the difference between chemical cones and natural henna. Support natural henna artists that are clear with their ingredients. There still stands the distrust I receive when I try to convert a chemical cone user to natural henna. White savior complex is a common pitfall I fall into which creates more harm and actually supports white supremacy. We need to meet people halfway and not create more damage by assuming we know better as natural henna artists. I like to offer my recipes and give support, not criticism. I do not push or judge. We should support the farmers in India and Pakistan by buying their safe, natural henna powder!

Racism plays a big role in the popularization of Cultural Appropriation. Taking a look at the current political climate in the USA, I see incidents of racial divides at an all time high due to remarks made by Trump. Those remarks like “build the wall” etc are then taken to extremes to fuel more hateful comments and bolster people’s opinions that are even more racist and xenophobic. Let me say that I started out henna ~10 years ago in Miami, Florida. I was lucky to grow up in a super diverse area. I was exposed to many different cultures growing up and learned to embrace many different customs and traditions.

Fast forward a couple years and presidents later.. I am living in Austin, Texas. A far less diverse area with rapid growth and a different political climate. I came into contact with a lot of white folks who had a problem with me doing henna. I was shocked and hurt, this had never happened to me in Miami where I worked for 5 years and began my henna practice. I worked with many different cultures & groups there and I never was told I was being harmful, disrespectful or appropriative. In Austin I was banned by markets or told I was unwelcome in certain circles to practice my art. They were judging me not by my artwork or knowledge but by my appearance. Shocker. I felt really guilty/conflicted about this aspect. Being unwelcome because your white is NOT a thing that happens in 99.9% of situations in America. The rest of the time, I am comfortable in my white privilege. This is why, I realized I was so shocked when I was discriminated against, because of course, it's never happened before! My reaction taught me I have alot to learn and grow. It opened by eyes to my privilege, and for that I am grateful. My friends who are people of color get profiled and discriminated against everyday!

Discrimination based on race or ethnicity is wrong. After these incidents started happening, they KEPT happening. I got countless rejections from places who decided I wasn’t the acceptable color. This was not just happening to me either, it was happening to my close friends and henna colleagues. People of various races and ethnicities not understood as henna using cultures were experiencing the same pushback. ( Asian, African American and Hispanic.) My friend who does henna in San Antonio, was explicitly asked if she was Indian by a market. Is it okay to ask that?? She is in fact part Indian, part Mexican. So which part of her background negates the fact that she can do henna? She told me about her experience and explained how caught off-guard she was! My friend gladly shared part of her culture with me & I helped teach her henna mixology years ago. Would the market that worried if she’s Indian enough be okay that a white woman taught her about part of her henna practice? Does that make her henna less authentic? No it does not! It is problematic to think this way.

History tells me that henna likely originated in Africa. So does “who did it first” correlate to who OWNS it? At my last market, a Hispanic family came up to watch me work. The mother was very knowledgeable about henna’s ancient history and was telling her kids about all the places it is/was practiced in.. All throughout the Middle East, India and Africa. One kid responded, “WOW! She does it better than the people who are supposed to know how to do henna.” It was an innocently meant comment from a child but it speaks volumes about how I am perceived. Do you automatically know how to do henna because you are from Egypt? Of course not, its a learned skill! Is every culture outside of Africa appropriating henna? No, but it is important to give credit if you are not from a henna using culture.

UH OH! Now let me address the uncomfortable topic of white on white crime!!!!! In my ~10 years doing henna, it has been mostly white people (women) attacking me for my use of henna in less diverse areas. ( Both online and in person.) One time I walked into a thrift store holding an intuitive art event in Spokane, WA. I saw they were hosting multiple artists/ practitioners. A man reading Viking runes, a girl doing botanical readings and a woman doing tarot. I asked for the manager to see if I could offer my henna. The woman I spoke with received me with excitement and loved my work. When I came back to secure a date, the tarot woman began to verbally attack me and tell me I’m offensive and unwelcome. She told me “Desi people on Twitter are not okay with white women doing henna.” I tried to explain my intensions but eventually walked away.. I don’t want to work in a toxic environment.

White people: We cannot overcome this issue with more hate and fear. We can only overcome this issue with patience, humility and understanding. If you are truly concerned with social justice then advocacy for people of color is more productive. Don’t be a fighting social justice warrior. Discouraging people who follow their passion with respect is not making positive change. Making an example of someone, trying to embarrass someone, is cruel and an act of superiority. I have had people judge me right off the bat without asking anything about my knowledge and respect.

Its not right to judge or bully anyone! These misunderstandings will keep happening if we are polarized against each other and made to fear what we perceive as different. How about having a nice conversation with a person instead of attacking them, asking them why they are wearing something, doing something, etc and then sharing knowledge/learning if they are unaware of implications or offense. We (white people) cannot undo what our ancestors have done (colonialism) by taking out our anger out on others. We cannot overcome white guilt with more fear and anger, either. I believe mutual respect, acceptance and curiousity can help us move forward in this world.

People have brought up the fact that I am profiting off a cultural practice that I have no ties to is considered cultural appropriation. What do you think? I felt some guilt over this issue but even in the cultures henna belongs to there is exchange of currency for skill. So its just the fact that I am not a part of that culture that makes it not okay that I am making money? (Speaking for myself and other independent artists, we are collectively NOT rolling in dough either!!) Yet I know henna artists who are hesitant/ afraid to charge for this reason. I believe if you take the time to properly acknowledge these cultures and learn a skill you have the right to be paid for your work. I have invested millions of hours into learning henna, learning from Industry professionals and traveling to conferences. I pay for insurance and the right to do business locally. Why shouldn’t I get paid for my skill? Am I taking jobs away from people of color? I feel that the world is too big to say I am stealing jobs from others who have a cultural connection to this art. I make it a point to build up the community and am open to working with artists of all backgrounds. I gladly invite people from different cultures to teach me and always am open to constructive criticism. I still have alot to learn and am open to being wrong. I can accept that there are some people who will never be okay with my passion & identity and thats something that will always hurt. I have truly learned that you can’t please everyone.

Now I’d like to step away from defending my henna usage to talk about the levels of harm that can be done by appropriating. This is broader than just my scope of henna art. Any art form/ technique has been done before and has traditions and social implications. Using a technique or pattern with inspiration from a group and then calling it your own can be very harmful. Lets say I do henna, but to avoid cultural implications I call it “hipster paste”. This is distancing myself from the culture and roots of the art form. Its taking credit for something I had no part in inventing! How about drawing henna designs or tattooing henna designs? Its not its traditional use, but does that make it wrong or offensive? Again, it comes back to paying tribute to those cultures that you take inspiration from. As long as your being clear with your inspiration, I don’t see an issue. Wearing henna as a costume to mock someone would be extremely harmful and disgusting. How about wearing henna because it is trendy/pretty and not knowing where it came from and it’s history? Possibly problematic without intention. So I feel that there are different levels of being appropriative.

I have had multiple henna & tattoo artists tell me I am appropriating their artwork by copying their designs (with credit.) I have learned to always ask people if I can copy their artwork, even if henna is temporary, to avoid conflict. Most of the time ego is involved and it is truly best to develop your own style and come up with your own designs. That doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired by something though! It is literally impossible not to have an influence in your artwork unless you are blind! As artists, we get inspiration from anything. At the end of the day, its important to know that everything has been done before, and everything is inspired by something else. Refusing to pay tribute to an inspiration is egotistical and breaks down the artistic community (past and present). So let's not bash each other, lets respect each other and grow together!

Please comment with your thoughts and experience. I want to hear YOUR voice!

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